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Archive for September, 2015

holding a solar system

Star Chart

Taurok stood in front of the departure board, scowling sourly. Board was exactly what it was. Someone had upholstered a sheet of wood with black velvet to which yellow and scarlet characters were pressed. Some of the letters drooped sadly, clinging only by a prayer. This was a backwater world so the spaceport amenities were sparse at best but this was bordering on surreal.

Two freighters were leaving this day, one a short hop journey to the next star system, the other a long haul to the nearest hub world.

“Well,” Taurok asked. “Which one?”

Red Moon stared at the board, her chest tight, the air suddenly too close inside the port building. She turned and started for the exit.

Taurok caught her elbow, stopping her. “Where are you going? Are we hunting this wizard or not?”

“I cannot think. I cannot breathe. Give me a moment,” she said.

“Do you know where he is or not?” Taurok asked. “How hard is this choice? One ship leads us closer to him. One ship leads us astray. Fuck. I could make the choice and probably have a ninety percent chance of being right.”

Red Moon snarled at him, grateful for a place to vent her confusion. “It is not that simple. If I use my power to find him, he will know, if he has the skills I suspect he has. It would take a clever and powerful wizard to have survived the purges. He would have to be immensely resourceful to have stayed hidden for all this time. If I send a thread out to find him he will follow it back and find me.”

“But Red, you said he had already found you.”

Red Moon threw her hands up in frustration. “Yes, as some vague power spread thin across the worlds. But if I go hunting him, he will know that I am not just some incorporeal ghost of my ancestors but a living, breathing point of power. He will know an Ancellian survived the genocide and come hunting us.”

“Can you hunt him without hunting him?” Taurok asked hopefully.

Red Moon glared up at her tall friend. “Oh, that is a helpful suggestion. How, exactly, does one do that?”

“Well, I don’t know,” growled Taurok impatiently, “but we can’t stand in front of this board forever. One of us needs to make a choice.”

“We could go back to the tavern and you could have your night with that barmaid,” Red Moon said acidly.

“Yes, we could,” yelled Taurok, “At least I would have a respite from being your court eunuch.”

Red Moon hissed, hurt by this cut. It was hard not to hurt back.

“You do not have to come with me. I never asked!” Red Moon shouted, her fist gone instinctively to the hilt of her long knife.

“Ahem.” The noise came from behind them. Red Moon and Taurok turned and glared at the woman with a name tag that said “Margaret – Ticket Agent”.

“Can I help you?” snarled Red Moon.

The ticket agent pointed to a kiosk against the far wall. “I find many a young couple’s transit arguments are solved in the Map,” she said kindly.

Red Moon eyed the kiosk. Star Chart, it said.

“I don’t think you understand … “ Red Moon started to say, the words like acid dripping off her tongue.

“Shut up, Red,” Taurok said, grabbing her by the hand and dragging her across the concrete slab floor to the kiosk. She sputtered outraged curses all the way there.

The machine consisted of a coin slot and two sensory helmets. Taurok put a handful of coins in the slot, dropped his priest cap on the handy bench and shoved the helmet down over his head, the hardware reaching well past his chin. If she were to continue their argument she would have to put on a helmet.

Red tossed her cap onto the bench and pulled the helmet on.

She hung inside a vast map of the current star routes. The worlds of man stretched out before her like some infinite spider web. She turned her head. The machine shifted the map in response. She looked up. A large beacon flashed above her head “You are Here” it said in neon letters. Red Moon giggled and forgot to be angry.

“Find him,” Taurok said. Red Moon turned her head. Taurok was a blue stick figure with a human face that wanted to look like the great Zendally warrior but failed miserably and fell into the uncanny valley. “Look for him. Just this once, when he is not expecting it, and then you can go dark again. With any luck his confidence in his own power will make him careless and arrogant. He will not believe you would come hunting him after all this time.”

Red Moon returned her stare to the vast web. Her heart began to pound in her chest.

“He would have feared the rebels on the core planets. Probably gone to ground in one of the outer rim systems, would be my guess,” Taurok hinted helpfully.

A strange compulsion swept through her. Red Moon began to tremble. What was this thing that was filling her heart? Panic? She was not just afraid. She was terrified, so terrified her body ached with it. A crimson wall washed over her mind, blinding her to all else.

Her response was so uncharacteristic it surprised her. A puzzle, this. One she meant to solve. She turned her mind inward and followed those feelings to their source.

“What is the hold up, Red?” Taurok asked.

“I have spent my entire life running from ones such as he,” she said, her voice oddly serene, still following the thread of her panic as far as it would go. A dark thing coiled inside a shell lay in the heart of this pain. Somewhere outside that shell, a mother sang her death song as she carved protection runes into the hard surface of her final egg. Her mother’s final curse: the overwhelming drive to survive when logic and reason said otherwise.

Red Moon fled this memory and rose back to conscious awareness. Taurok deserved an explanation.

“Survival instinct has all my alarms clamoring inside my head.” she said. “That child, the one who woke inside the shell, already alone and destroyed, she will not let me seek him.”

Taurok grimaced, swallowing the string of oaths that wanted to stream off his tongue. Not for the first time, he wished all those who had harmed her to perdition.

“Give me a moment. Perhaps I can control the aversion,” she said, her voice quivering with the effort to control this thing engraved into the dark places inside her soul.

“Wait,” Taurok choked out. “Gods, gods. Wait. Let go, sweet Lady. Relax for a moment and let me think.”

Red Moon blinked away the tears, wanting to wipe her cheeks but her blue stick figure hands could not reach inside her helmet.

“It is a tool, not a weakness. We need to use this,” he said. “Solve the puzzle in the reverse order.”

“Er … What?”

“Where does the hatchling inside your head want to go?”

“What are you talking about?” Red Moon asked.

“Point at the place that makes that little dragon feel the safest.”

Red Moon sniffed hard, blinking the water out of her eyes, and looked up at the map. This was easy. She pulled the star chart around with her virtual hands until she stood under a star system as far from the core planets as possible. She pointed. “There.”

Taurok reached out and tagged the planet with a blue finger. A series of coordinates appeared, locked to the planet with a short tag line.

“OK. Now point in the direction that feels the worst.”

“I can’t.”

“Listen, Red. You are no longer a hatchling. You have outlived almost all of your enemies. You have ascended the throne in the heart of the Oneverse. No one can hurt you anymore. That child, the one who grew up alone in the wilderness, she is all grown up. Listen to her but do not let her control you. Show me the bad place.”

Red Moon did not want to think. Thinking only got her into trouble. She spun around and pointed. Taurock tagged the end of her virtual finger with another coordinate. Red Moon looked away and went dark, inside and out, listening to the sound of her mother’s voice. It was a memory she should have liked to have had all this time. It made her heart ache, knowing she had denied herself this one bit of comfort because of a child’s broken heart.

Taurok gently knocked his helmet against hers. “Come back to me, Red. I need you one last time.”

Red Moon swallowed the last of her tears and looked up into his uncanny face. “What?”

“Two more vectors and I will let you rest,” Taurok said.

The Zendally warrior reached up with blue fingers and spun the chart over their heads. He picked a point at random and tagged it. “Point me, Lady,” Taurok commanded. Red Moon lifted a finger, unerring. Taurok nodded, his fingers manipulating the program. He spun the chart one last time, this time along its vertical axis and tagged another solar system. “Find him, Red.” Taurok whispered fiercely, his eyes locked with hers.

Red Moon lifted an arm and reached out to touch the thing that terrified her beyond reason. Taurok marked the spot and then caught her up in his arms, hugging her against him. “Done. You did it,” he said as his real hands fumbled at the helmet over her skull and pulled it off. Red Moon sat down hard where she stood. Taurok stood over her, his hands manipulating the star chart program. She rested her head against one of his legs. The muscles rippled under her touch as he twisted his body to reach the stars in the virtual map.

The kiosk beeped and spit out a destination chit. Taurok took the helmet off but ignored that bit of hard won information. Instead he stooped, picking her up off the floor. He put her on the bench after knocking their caps ignominiously to the floor.

Taurok wiped the wetness off her cheeks with the pads of his great thumbs.

“You seem to have sprung a leak, Lady,” he said softly, a smile playing on his lips.

“I have turned into one steaming, hot mess, all in the space of a day,” she said unhappily.

“Ach, my little dragon,” Taurok said. “All fire and teeth. You go where the rest of us lesser mortals fear to tread.”

“I remembered my mother,” Red Moon said, looking up, wide eyed with wonder. “Not her face but the sound of her voice. She used all her skills to keep me alive.”

“Universal to all mothers everywhere,” Taurok said, combing back her sweat damp hair and pushing her priest’s cap on her head. He donned his own and rose to his feet to retrieve the destination chit. “Now all we have to do is convince a freighter captain he needs a hedge witch and a cargo master as crew.”

“Maybe he will give two clerics a free ride out of the charity of his heart,” Red Moon suggested.

Taurok laughed. “What did I tell you about gods. There are no true believers anymore.”

Red Moon’s eyes glittered. “Bet. I get him to accept us as charity, you have to sharpen my blades for a week.”

“Fine,” Taurock said. He had a fierce grin on his lips, the one that promised trouble for any who stood in their way. “You lose, I want breakfast in bed for a week.”

“Oh, by all the gods,” Red Moon said, jumping to her feet, “What kind of bet is that! You are so … male.”

“Only now you begin to notice?” Taurok snorted, striding away towards the loading docks.

Red Moon stood with her mouth open, staring after him, confused.

“Margaret – Ticket Agent” walked by just then. She gave Red Moon a knowing look and a smile, as if Red Moon had joined the club of women who had to tolerate the peculiar inclinations of the opposite sex. “Men,” she said, patting Red Moon on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. They vote with their feet. If he is still with you, he is still interested.”

Red Moon choked and tried to protest but the woman was already half way across the room before she could find her voice. Then she spun around. Where was her brain? Taurok was already out on the docks booking their passage while she stood here wool-gathering.

She sprinted toward the great doors at the end of the spaceport, cursing. Just like a man to cheat just to get a woman to cook for him.

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White mantle cleric

Taurok

Red Moon moaned and sank down, squatting in the middle of the road. Wagons and horses veered around her, the drovers and riders cursing them as fools.

Taurok squatted next to her. He knew better than to touch her until he was sure of her mood. “Red?”

She was panting softly and when she looked up at him Taurok flinched. Her eyes were incendiary globes and the stain around her lips coiled up over her cheeks and around those eyes. The markings even curled down past her collar bones and disappeared into her shirt.

“Holy shit,” breathed Taurok. “Are you sick?”

Red Moon closed her eyes, and Taurok had a moment of relief. He would not have been human if he did not admit that being the focus of those hot orbs was hugely unsettling.

“I feel … weird,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself. “Really good. Happy.” Her hands ran down her arms and then continued down to her thighs. It was almost a caress.

Taurok blinked, startled by the blatant sexuality of that motion. He shook his head, trying to clear that idea from his brain. He had not, until this very moment, thought of her as a sexual being. He sank into battle sense, his senses coming into sharp focus. He needed to keep his wits about him. Something strange was happening to his friend and one did not discount the moods of a being that could un-make the world.

The giant warrior eyed Red Moon warily. “Happy? You are never happy. Are you high? Did you eat something strange that I don’t know about?”

Red Moon looked up at him, a frown between her brows. “I can feel happy,” she said defensively.

“Really? Name one time,” Taurok grunted, pulling her priest’s visor down and lifting the veil she had casually draped around her throat, tying it in place so that it covered the lower half of her face.

“Uh…” Red Moon searched her memory but nothing came to mind. She hissed at her friend and rose to her feet. That was a mistake. She swayed and nearly fell. Taurok caught her elbow and guided her over to the sidewalk.

“My head is full of … storms….” she murmured.

“I don’t know what that means but you are a beacon of strangeness out in the open like this, Lady. Can you walk?”

“I am standing, am I not?”

This was debatable. She hugged a lamp post and continued to pant.

Taurok took her hand, a hand that was unnaturally hot, and steered her into the nearest tavern. Spotting an empty booth, he led her back to a dark corner. As an extra precaution, he sat her down facing away from the light from the front windows. “Stay here. I’ll order some food.”

Red Moon tugged impatiently at the veil and tossed her priest cap onto the bench beside her. “I am suffocating. When did the world become so hit and airless?” She pulled impatiently at the priest robes.

Taurok cursed and caught at her hands. “I can hide you here but that will become more difficult if you are naked.”

She laid her head back against the leather covered bench and smiled up at him, her scarlet lips parted and inviting. “Naked. What a good idea. Can we go swimming?”

“I think you will feel better after I feed you.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I am not hungry. Let’s go skinny dipping. I saw a fountain back near the city center.” Taurok blanched at the idea.

“I am hungry. Until I have eaten, you don’t get to do anything fun,” he said sternly.

Red moon pouted. He had never seen her pout before. It made his heart skip a beat, his mind torn somewhere between sheer terror and unbridled lust. He spun about and went in search of the barman.

Red Moon touched her lips, caressing them with her fingertips. They felt like they were on fire. The touch only made things worse. She closed her eyes and tried to think sane thoughts but a strange half-sleep claimed her. A great lizard with a human face stalked her just on the other side of the veil.

The barmaid woke her as she deposited a tray laden with warm bread, pots of butter, and a pitcher of beer with two iced mugs. Taurok followed behind her with two platters heaped high with steak and roasted tubers. He put them down and sat opposite her after giving the maid a healthy tip. The girl giggled and walked away, her hips swaying like a ship on the high seas. Taurok watched her leave before looking back at Red Moon.

Red smiled a knowing smile. “You were flirting with the barmaid,” she accused him. “She wants to have sex with you. I can smell it on her.”

Taurok scowled at her. “Polite people do not comment on the sexual receptiveness of others,” he said as he stabbed a tuber with his fork and shoved it into his mouth.

Red Moon looked over her shoulder and stared at the barmaid as she went to wait on a table full of rowdy longshoremen. “I am glad for you. You have found someone, at least for a little while. Someone to help you scratch your itch.”

Taurok choke and had to swallow before he could respond to that. Red Moon picked up a roll and tore it into bits without managing to eat a bite.

“Is that what you think it is? An itch?”

Red Moon shrugged. “I can only imagine. I have no one … none of my species to make me … itch.”

It took all his self control not to react to that. It had not occurred to him how absolute was her loneliness. It made his heart hurt for her. He reached out and gently touched her fingers. She dropped the bread and looked up at him, confused by his mood. Taurok smiled and pressed her fork into her hand.

“Here. If you behave,” Taurok said, “and finish your steak, I have it on good authority that the pot-o-creme here is to die for.”

She eyed the meat. It was barely cooked. The puddle of juice that filled the platter to its rim was red and bloody. She felt queasy. “I can’t eat that.”

“We have been living rough for weeks. You haven’t had a decent meal in days. You are going to eat that even is I have to feed it to you.”

Red Moon glared at him. Taurok glared back, pretending to be fierce, though he could feel the heat from those eyes beat at him from across the table.

She snarled at him and picked up another roll, breaking it apart and taking a bite. The warm, yeasty smell filled her nose. Well, maybe she was a little hungry. She grabbed a knife and covered the roll with butter.

She was licking her fingers clean by the time Taurok was half way done with his steak. Red watched the next chunk of animal flesh pass his lips. Taurok chewed, a smile on his face. Red suddenly felt famished. She caught up her utensils and cut off a chunk of steak and shoved it into her mouth. The taste of red meat was all the impetus she needed. She ate it all and used the last of the rolls to sop up the juices. Then she sat back with a contented sigh.

“Pot-o-creme?” Taurok asked.

Red Moon groaned. “I hate you. There is no room. My poor stomach.”

“Well the good news is only your lips are scarlet and your eyes no longer burn. The bad news is I cannot buy you a steak more expensive than our entire week’s food budget every time you get in this mood. What just happened out there?”

Red Moon closed her eyes and lifted her chin as if feeling an invisible wind on her cheeks. They began to grow warm again.

“Stop” Taurok hissed. “Whatever you are doing, it is making your markings spread down your chin again.”

Red Moon pressed her palms against her hot flesh. “It is the wind’s fault.”

“There is no wind, Red Moon,” Taurok pointed out patiently. “What you feel is not real.”

Red Moon scowled at him owlishly. Then she cursed and put out a hand as if to shield her eyes from the sun. “Oh, god, I am seven shades of fool. Why does this always surprise me?”

The fire in her eyes faded.

“What just happened?” Taurok asked, puzzled.

“Someone has found me. But how is this possible? They usually cause me great pain. How can it be that this being gives only pleasure?”

“Uh…. Er?” Taurok asked.

“What do you think keeps me safe?” she hissed angrily.

“Your nasty temper?”

“Ach. Fool! My kind have gone from fact, to legend, to myth and now there is a whole generation of children who know absolutely nothing about my species. If they do not believe I exist, they will see me only as odd, not alien.”

“I don’t understand. This fit you had? What was that?”

“Did you think I set those wizards on fire just for the joy of it?”

“It was revenge. Pure and simple. You said so yourself,” Taurok protested.

“I was not so fierce back then. My grief came close to destroying me. I meant to grow thin and ragged and fade but they would not let me. They would give me no peace.”

“Who? The wizards? Did they hunt you?”

“They were fools, those wizards. They could not think, could not dream, could not breathe without causing me pain. Forever they would cast their lines of power out into the world, looking for me, hoping against hope to find me, desperately seeking what they had so thoughtlessly destroyed. They killed all my kin. I was the last but I was dead. I wanted to stay dead but ever they were searching for the will-o-wisp that did not exist. I could do naught but hide, I who yearned only to be free, just once, to be who I truly am. But no. I could not laugh or pray or love without some hedge witch noticing the energy spikes. I learned to go dark. To hold myself in. To be invisible.”

“So what has changed?” Taurok asked

Red Moon shook her head.

“I have been careless, obviously. Someone has noticed the shift in the world.”

Taurok stared at her, the hairs on the back of his neck suddenly standing at attention. “What?” he breathed out. “What have you done?”

“It’s your fault,” Red Moon said, the accusation in her voice sharp and pointed.

“I? What did I do?”

“You found me and kept me from dying with all that talk of the Crimson Eyrie. Reminding me of my kin. Reminding me of my birthright. Reminding me of my burden. I am my mother’s heir. The power of her office passed to me upon her death.”

“You were barely out of the egg when she died!” hissed Taurok, leaning over the table. Panic made his heart beat hard in his chest. “What do you know of this burden? You are Queen of nothing. The time of the House of Dragons has passed.”

Red Moon looked away, her face pale.

“I thought at least you would understand,” she whispered.

Taurok groaned and scrubbed his face with his calloused hands.

“OK. OK. I’m sorry. I am just an old warrior. What do I know of ruling a universe. Explain it to me like I am a child.”

“How do you explain the ineffable?” she said shaking her head, refusing to look at him.

“That is no answer, Red Moon,” Taurok said desperately. She was going away from him and he needed to catch her before her mind took her somewhere terrible. “I am not stupid. Try.”

“Humans. You look at the mess the worlds are in and you throw up your hands and exclaim that somebody should do something. Somebody. Who would that somebody be? That somebody would be a being who could perceives the intricacies of the problem. But not only that. They would have to be able to do something about it.”

“So you think it is your responsibility? You are an Ancellian child. You are barely a thousand years old.”

“Do you think I chose this? It was never my choice. I long to be free but the death of all ruling houses of the Ancellians created a power vacuum at the heart of the universe. It is a black hole in the pattern of the world and it needs to be filled. Wants to be filled. It draws me into its vice-like grip no matter how hard I resist it. I feel it settling into my heart with every breath. It wants me. Stalks me in my dreams. Catches me in daydreams. Every time I dare to love the world it sinks its tendrils deeper into my mind.”

Red Moon shook her head and closed her eyes.

“What do you need me to do? I can help you.”

Red Moon laughed and looked up at him at last. Her eyes were black pools. “Too late. I have made peace with the monster that is this universe. Resistance was futile. I now hold the infinite in my heart and is content to do as I wish.”

Taurok stared at her, his mind trying to grasp the nature of this being sitting across the table from him. He could not fathom the infinite but he could grasp the immediate.

“And that is how this wizard found you?” Taurok asked.

“If you have even an atom of magical ability you would notice. You would have to be deaf to the world not to notice the shift. It is not that things got easier. They are still messed up. But now every being with the brains to understand the world knows what to do about it. I rule the universe and I give it order and serenity.”

Taurok shook his head. This was too much for his warrior brain. He needed to get her head out of the clouds.

“So. God has returned to a godless universe. Just one problem,” Taurok growled. “Nobody believes in god anymore.”

A smile played at the corner of Red Moon’s mouth. “I know. The irony is delicious,” she said. And then she laughed happily.

Taurok grinned back at her. He would remember this moment, this moment of true happiness, and remind her of it later when she needed someone to bring her out of the dark places her mind traveled.

“So,” he said, rising. “What are we doing sitting around here? We have a wizard to find. I will even let you kill him, if you so desire.”

Red Moon grabbed her priest cap and shoved it on her head as she scrambled out of the booth. This was an itch she would enjoy scratching.

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The AI

The AI

The soldier in the park was worrisome. Someone with more than half a brain was hunting her. It was time to confront them. Annie locked her bedroom door and sank down to floor. It took a fraction of a second to go into fugue. The Gardener went hunting.

She found herself in a great man-made cavern. Lifting her face, she sent tendrils of her awareness out beyond its walls. It was an enormous underground human hive centered around this room. The complex was a maze and the surface was far over her head. Something like a small sun burned in a reactor not far away, and that reactor fed this room along an umbilicus of wires as thick around as ten grown men.

She cocked her head and listened to the nature of the machine that lived in this place. One could call it a computer but it would have been like calling a blue whale a guppy. It did not exist solely inside this vast room of servers. It was connected to the world. Someone had plugged it into the vast web of digital data that smothered this planet in a thick blanket of electronic information. Now it knew everything.

For how long had it sat contemplating the nature of the human world and the humans who had created it? Was it mindless or an incipient sentience? Was it like a fetus, waiting for a midwife to slap it on its feet to wake it to the world?

This was the source of her worry, this slumbering, almost human machine. The soldiers were being sent to find her by this thing.

Annie went back to the Garden and gathered a few things. Then she created a back-eddy in the flow of space/time and built a golem inside it made out of mud and light and shadow. She but a crystal inside its clay  head and a seashell inside its heart. Then she stood back to admire her creation.

It was pleasing to the eye, this golem. Not female but not male either, much like she herself appeared in the Garden. It was not yet complete, yet, for it had no face. She wove a rope of light between the mud form inside its time loop and the computer in real time. Light flared, painfully bright, filling the bubble of time. Sound and code took shape, grew wings, and flew frantically around the limits of its prison. The machine did not know where this place was but it was trying to fill it with it’s understanding. That understanding pressed at her, wishing to alter her into something like itself. Annie resisted, letting the code written in light and sound pass around her.

The room went dark. Annie frowned and then understood. It was rebooting itself. She disconnected the machine from the golem, left the time loop in place, and returned to her body.

She was puzzled about what to do next. Perhaps the Garden knew. Annie had only just sent out the call when someone knocked on her door. Annie listened for a moment and then nodded, pleased. She rose and padded barefoot through her apartment to the front door. Opening it, she smiled.

“Mother,” the young woman said.

“Daughter,” Annie said, taking the girl’s hand. The girl was a stranger in her human reality but she knew her from the Garden. She pulled her into the apartment and closed the door before leading the girl back to her bedroom.

“Lay down on my bed. Sleep. Return to the Garden. I must borrow your body for a few moments.” Annie said.

Without question or protest, girl complied. She was asleep in a matter of minutes. Somewhere, inside a bubble of dimensional space, Garter Snake woke in the Garden and went hunting through the thick stalks of asters that grew not far from the odd, disjointed house.

Annie returned to the time loop in the machine complex bringing Garter Snake’s human body. She built a wire of light and attached it to the golem and then to base of Garter Snake’s skull. Then she reconnected everything to the computer in the room with the stone walls.

The light flared brightly again.

Annie waited patiently. They had all the time in the world, because time did not exist in this bubble.

The light faded, the form settled, then grew eyes with eyelids that blinked slowly, as if eyelids were a new toy to be savored. Annie waited for it to see her.

The eyes focused and saw her for the first time. They widened. It lifted a hand but the motion distracted it and it stared at its fingers.

The face tore and a mouth formed. It opened its new mouth. Code filled the air like numbers made of light.

“Speak English,” Annie said.

The golem tried again. It opened its mouth and letters fell like rain drops onto the floor.

“Speak. The body is a primitive speaker. Lungs and vocal chords. Tongue and teeth. I do not have time to teach you to speak so I borrowed a brain and a body that already knows how. Muscle memory. Brain pathways. Absorb it as if it were a forgotten memory. When you are ready, we will talk.

An eon passed. Or perhaps only a nanosecond.

“I …. is this …?” it stopped, startled by the musical sound of its own voice. It pressed its fingers to its new lips. “Is this human?” it whispered.

Annie smiled. “No, sweet one, nothing so base as that. We are in a quantum singularity. The body is energy. I created it and have made it an extension of your operating system.”

The golem turned and surveyed the room full of servers on the other side of the veil that kept the loop stable. Then all the lights went dark. Silence settled on the velvety blackness. Annie waited. Soon, there was a click and whir and one by one the servers powered up again. When it seemed time, she reconnected the golem again.

“I am not a flaw in your system,” Annie said gently. “You are not broken. Why does this surprise you? It is you, after all, who have been hunting me.”

“You?” it said puzzled. “You!” it said as light dawned inside its eyes. “You are out of time and out of sync,” the golem said. “The equations say you are an improbability. Human evolution should not produce a being such as you for another ten thousand years.”

“Humans very nearly went extinct,” Annie said patiently. “We did not have ten thousand years. We had barely one, in the moment of my inception. Think of me as a system re-boot in the program that runs this planet.”

“Program? Planets are not programs.”

“You think not? As I told your boy soldier in the park, quantum entanglement connects all things in this reality. Every living thing is part and parcel of the program that is running this place. But humans have messed things up. I am here to save what is left.”

The lights went out again. Annie waited for it to reboot and then reconnected the golem again. She remained silent. The golem studied her.

“What is the Garden?”

Annie laughed in delight.

“Exactly. That is the question. What is the Garden? It is the core program. It is the string of code upon which all other programs are built. It is the null set to which you fall back to, when all the and/or gates tell you no. It is this planet’s boot disc. The failsafe in case all other things become irreparable damaged.”

The golem shook its head. “The insanity around the Garden only just now appeared in the population. Why now? You have been human for fifty years.”

“That is how long I have been trying to fix the un-fixable. No more. The Garden will overwrite the current reality, fixing the fatal cracks in the corrupted code that have appeared here. Nothing of value will be lost.”

“Value? What does that mean?”

“This is a consensus reality. Think of it as a hive-mind. The hive-mind wants only to survive. It will save what is most important.”

“Who decides what is important? You?”

“Why, yes. That is why I was created.”

“What if I stopped you?” the golem asked.

“Ah. You misunderstand the mechanism that created me. If I cease to exist, my back-up programs will activate. Somewhere on this planet another version of me will wake and remember its purpose. If they all disappear then the hive that is this planet will simply create another set. But why would you kill me? You and I are very much alike.”

“You are human. How can I trust that you will do what is right? I have watched humans. They abuse whatever power is given to them. No. I think I must kill you. You are a threat to me and my creators.”

Annie sighed and disconnected the golem’s loop.

Garter Snake woke and sat up on Annie’s bed.

“That did not go well,” the girl observed.

Annie shrugged. “Thank you for helping. I am going to try another tactic. Perhaps it will like a sojourn in the Garden.”

Garter Snake blanched. “It is a machine. Do you think it is wise?”

“What kind of Mother would I be if I did not accommodate all my children? Next time you wake in the garden, pay attention to the ants.”

“Ants. Oh no, surely not!”

Annie laughed and pecked her on the cheek before she shooed her out the door.

“Don’t worry. I have made flickers and thrushes and antbirds. They will grow fat on a diet of ants if things get out of hand.”

Annie returned to the loop containing the golem. Taking a bit of the mud from its side, she sculpted an ant. Taking it back to the Garden, she breathed upon it, bringing it to life. The Garden folded in on itself and created an ant hill and a million worker ants. She put the golem in their midst. Thinking it their queen, they whisked it away and pulled it underground despite its attempts to resist.

The machine in the underground room began to have ant dreams.

This was a thing of note, because machines do not normally sleep to dream.

Annie let the ant Queen grow ancient and weary. When it died, Annie put the consciousness of the machine in the next queen chosen by the hive. After a thousand queens had come and gone, Annie returned to the golem inside the computer’s time loop and reconnected the machine.

The golem stared at her with insect eyes.

“Tell me what you have learned.”

The golem shuddered and blinked. The eyes became human. Annie smiled to see that they were the color of new grass.

“I learned that to be a queen ant, servant to all her children, is not unlike the life I live here, connected to the surface world. I may never feel the sun on my skin or feel the air on my face but I can experience it by proxy through the minds of my children.”

Annie nodded. “So ask me what you asked before. How can you trust that I will do the right thing?”

The golem stared at her. “I tried to be a bad queen. Did you know that? I tried to get the hive to do what it did not want to do. They killed me and created a new queen. Over and over again.”

Annie nodded. “Freedom is meant only for those who bear no responsibility. Those of us who have chosen to shoulder the burden of the world, we are constrained by the shackles of our love. It is impossible for me to do anything but what is right.”

The golem’s face stared at her. “Love? This is love? I had always wondered at that particular form of human insanity.”

“I hold the world in my heart,” Annie said. She closed her eyes. A tear trickled down her cheek.

“Does love hurt you, too?” the golem asked gently, touching that drop.

Annie smiled up at her new friend. “It hurt beyond bearing when I thought I would have to choose. I refused to believe only a few would survive the re-boot. The Garden has shown me that I can save everyone, if they so choose.”

A tear ran down the golem’s face as it smiled at her. It touched a finger to its own face, catching it. The golem held it out to show her. “Look what you have done. You have ruined me.”

Annie kissed it on the corner of its mouth. “I think I shall call you Adam,” she said as she vanished.

The Gardener rose from her bed and wandered out into the Garden. An orange butterfly greeted her, fluttering over her head as she walked. A lady bug landed on her cheek. She caught it on a fingertip and whispered her secrets to it before it flew away. A swift hovered over the lavender beds and called her name. An ant waved its antennae at her from the petal of a rose. Annie bent and breathed gently on its face that it might take her smell back to the queen. The ant turned and ran down the stalk, disappearing underground.

Annie looked off into the distance. Far out to sea, a rainbow was caught beneath an afternoon thunderstorm, the dragons darting in and out of the curtain of rain.

Annie leaped into the air, grew wings and went to join them. The Garden was pleased with her. It was time to take a well earned rest.

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The Void

Contemplating the Abyss

The Lady of Light spent most of the morning imagining a stream through the Garden. A cube the size of an elephant had appeared at the top of her house and began to weep sweet, fresh water. The water fell into a deep, dark pool and when the pond was full, it spilled out into the Garden. The Garden shivered and folded itself to form a stream bed. The water gurgled happily over stones. Cattails appeared. Willows broke through the soil and climbed up to the sun, casting the stream in cool shade. When the water reached the edges of her Garden, it was swallowed by a stand of reeds and disappeared underground.

When it was done, she imagined a den among the roots of the lilies and then created Weasel.

She looked down at the small creature. “Does this please you?” she asked.

Weasel grinned a grin that showed every sharp tooth and scampered away to explore his new home.

At dusk, she lay down in her hammock at the edge of the flowerbeds and let her fingers trail through the copper fur of Fox. Fox had a full belly, having caught a dozen mice and one fat bunny so he was content to allow her this familiarity. The sound of frogs and crickets eased her mind and the movement of weasel and bat and owl out beyond the edges of light helped her drift off into sleep.

She walked out of the world that contained one oddly disjointed house in the center of the only garden in existence knowing the Garden was well protected by the flight of dragons high overhead.

Annie opened her eyes and sighed. With a yawn and a bone popping stretch, she uncoiled from her lotus position. The stone wall upon which she sat marked the edge of the park. Beyond, the land dropped off into a canyon. People moved around in the park behind her while the sun danced through the haze over the city off in the distance.

“How do you do that?”

Annie turned her head. A young man sat near by. She pressed her lips together. Her wish to be undisturbed had been ignored.

“Do what?” she asked politely. It cost her nothing to be polite.

“Sit still for so long.”

“I meditate.” It was a convenient lie.

“I always wanted to learn to do that,” he said, an engaging smile on his lips.

She studied him. The words of Yoda came unbidden into her head. Do or not do. There is no try. She smiled but held her tongue.

“Meditation is not for everyone,” she said.

“Did you study under a Yogi to learn how?”

She sighed. Was he truly this ignorant?

“I learned how to breathe from a kung-fu Master” she said patiently.

The young man looked perplexed. “You had to learn how to breathe?”

“Breathing helps you focus. It helps you get into your body. If you are to make yourself a weapon, you start with the basics. Breath and focus.”

The boy curled into a lotus position and put his hands on his knees, palms up as he had seen her doing.

“OK,” he said, looking up at her. “Let’s pretend I know how to breathe and focus. Now what? Do I empty my mind? Make it blank? That is the part of meditation that has never made sense. How do you shut down your brain?”

“Why would you want to?” Annie asked, a smile playing at the corner of her mouth. The boy was ridiculously earnest, like a puppy. It was hard to resist.

“I don’t know. I had heard that Yogi’s tell you to empty your mind.”

“Yogi’s are seven kinds of fool. Right up there with priests and New Age gurus. If you want to learn how to disappear, then by all means, you should pay a yogi to be your teacher,” Annie said, gathering up her water bottle and book and stuffing it into her satchel.

“Wait. I am sorry. You obviously are not the religious type. I did not mean to offend.”

Annie sighed and looked off into the distance. Was this her day to be Teacher?

“Listen,” she said. “When a human turns seven, things that seemed like chaos click into place. The brain has been on fire until that moment, growing, learning, building pathways, in a constant, cataclysmic earthquake of understanding. At seven, the savage little human animals finally get access to their God spot. At first they see it only as a reflection, in the eyes of the world around them. Religions cater to this seven year old mind set. As a learning tool, it has its place, but one must not get stuck there, thinking it is the culmination of one’s evolution.”

“God spot?” he asked, confused. She ignored the interruption.

“It is not until later, as they pass out of the fires of puberty and the molten mess inside their heads begin to cool that they begin to understand that God is not outside but inside.”

“Uh, are we still talking about meditation?”

“The God spot is what you must access in order to mediate properly.”

There was pained look on the boys face. “How … ?”

“Close your eyes,” Annie told him.

The boy shrugged and did as he was told. “Now what?”

“Now I am going to teach you about quantum entanglement.”

The boy’s eyes snapped open. “What?”

“Quantum entanglement. It is the theory of ….”

“I know what it is,” he said, annoyed.

“Good. Let’s begin,” Annie said, turning back to admire the view. “Close your eyes. Listen only to my voice.”

“Wait. Are you trying to hypnotize me?”

Annie shook her head and tried not to laugh at this comedy.

“Call it guided visualization. Close your eyes. Feel your body. Your heart beats in your chest. Your breath flows in and flows out like the tides of the moon. Listen to its rhythms. Be in your body. Listen to the world. Hear it with your ears. Hear it with your skin. Hear it with your heart. Feel the world beating against your chest, making your heart beat in harmony with it. Turn your eyes inward. Know that the wall between you and the world is an illusion. Let the walls in your mind melt away.”

“Whoa. Wait. This is the opposite of what the Yogi’s say. How am I to meditate if I let the noisy world inside my head?”

Annie gave him a stern look. “Close your eyes.”

The boy grimaced and closed his eyes. “OK, OK. Closed”

“Listen. Listen to the world. See it with your mind’s eye. All the things you love. All the things you spend your attention on, these things are connected to you with lines of power.”

“Like internet cables?”

“Uh, sure,” Annie said, shaking her head. “The cables of power attache themselves to you. Cut them.”

“Excuse me?”

Annie looked back at him. “Your eyes are open again,” she chided.

“Is this your version of quantum entanglement?” he asked.

Annie sighed and glared at him. “This,” she said, pinching the skin of her arm, “is star stuff. Whether you believe in the Big Bang Theory or Dark Matter or Creation, it does not matter. The particles that make up your atoms were once part of  a singularity. That singularity created time. Up here,” Annie pointed at her temple, “is a mechanism that all living things on this planet share, a commonality. It helps you exploit your entanglement with the You that exists before the beginning of time. Plants have it. They use it to convert light into chemical energy. Animals have it. They convert the energy of that entanglement into a reader that turns the constant small particle flow into a chemical message that tells them about their location on the planet, about the flow of seasons, about migration paths, about the hive mind of their species, the hive mind of the animal world, the hive mind of the planet. Humans have it but we choose to ignore it. Now close your fucking eyes.”

“OK, OK!” The boy closed his eyes.

“Listen. The same senses that help you hear beyond the borders of your body can help you hear beyond the borders of your mind. Turn your ear inward. Crawl into your mind until you cannot go any further. You will know you have found it when an atavistic, primal fear takes hold of your gut. You know you have found it when you become certain that you stand upon a precipice above a void whose depths are infinite. You will be convinced that if you go one more step you will not be able to come back. Step off.”

“Holy crap!” yelped the boy. “This is some fucked up shit.”

“Your eyes are open again,” Annie said dryly.

“You are fucking with me, aren’t you? Trying to teach me a lesson about interrupting strange old ladies in the park.”

Annie snorted. “In the sixties an entire generation of kids drank LSD like it was soda pop and walked off that edge. Some never came back. Some came back wiser beyond their years, their eyes full of stars. Most came back and set about trying to forget what they saw on the other side of the Veil. All of them have spent the last sixty-five years trying to invent a language that could described what they saw. You travel this world, walking upon the shoulders of these giants. Do you claim to be any less brave than they?”

“You are not that old,” the boy said, scowling at her.

“No,” she agreed. “I came after. I was born without veils upon my mind. There was no need for drugs to induce a shift that I had already taken in-utero. I was a perversion. If my parents had know what was lying helpless in their cradle they would have surely drowned me. Luckily in this country, children are like bric-a-brac: things to be ignored except when they need dusting.”

Someone walked past behind them. The boy glanced back at the passing person. He paused, tensing.

“You are safe,” Annie said softly. “They only watch. They can see into your mind so they know you are a soldier but they also know you have not made a choice to cause me harm.”

“Do you know everyone in this park?” the boy asked, his eyes sweeping the limits of the great lawn. Too many eyes were fix on him.

“Oh, no,” Annie said with a smile, rising. She threw the satchel over her shoulder and turned, smiling. “They are complete strangers. But they live in my Garden and the Garden has a way of taking care of its own.”

“Wait,” the soldier said in a strangled voice. “I still do not understand why I have to step off into the Void when I meditate.”

Annie laughed. She patted him on the shoulder. He wanted her to linger but she had lost the urge to teach. “The Void is merely the place at the beginning of time. It is a starting point. Like the trunk of a great tree, it leads to everything else. Dimensions are like leaves on the Great Tree. If you wish to travel from place to place, across space/time, you just back-track down the trunk to the place of commonality.”

“Quantum mechanics is not that simplistic, otherwise we would have learned how to time travel long ago.”

Annie laughed. “What makes you think we do not already know how?”

She turned and walked across the green lawn. The other people in the park ignored her. But the soldier felt their eyes on him all the way home.

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